Any time you get into a new car, what’s the first thing you do? You move the seat forward or back, adjust the rear-view mirrors, and maybe even change the height of the steering wheel. With mountain bikes, there are often only three available size options—small, medium, and large— and maybe one or two more if you’re lucky. Today, we’ll talk about how you go about catering this relatively small number of frame sizes to the massive variety of different sized people out there.
We covered the first touch point we have with our bike in part two - our pedals. In this installment of Understanding Mountain Bikes, episode four, I’m going to dive into our remaining two touch points: our cockpit and our saddle.
These easily adjusted areas allow us to tailor the fitment of our bike to our bodies and our preferences. They are things that are very easy to overlook, forget about, or feel intimidated by, which often leads to riding a bike that isn’t as comfortable as it could be. They’re a lot more intuitive and easy to change than you might think, and the primary tool you need is a regular multi-tool, so grab yours and let’s jump in!
We’ll start up front with our cockpit, where the first component to be aware of is your stem. Stems come in different lengths, so getting a different stem is one way to change the distance between your hands and your bum. That comes into play while seated, and makes you feel more (or less) stretched out. You can also change that distance by adjusting your saddle, so don’t go out and buy a new stem just yet.
Most stock stems today have trended towards the shorter side of things, and are usually 40 to 50mm long. You can buy stems as short as 32mm and as long as you want, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the longer the stem, the more your weight is pulled out over the front wheel. That can make it a bit easier to get tossed over the bars, which is why gravity oriented riders tend towards shorter stems.
Adjusting Your Stem Height
One easy adjustment to make on your current stem is its height, which can help you feel more or less upright on your bike. This can be altered by changing the arrangement of your headset spacers—the little rings you’ll see above and below the stem. If there aren’t any to remove from the direction you want to go, unfortunately you’re out of luck with this change, but you can get similar effects elsewhere.
If you do have spacers to move around, all you need to do is remove your stem’s top cap, evenly loosen the two pinch bolts on the back of the stem, and re-arrange the spacers as you’d like.
When you’re putting it back together, make sure you still have the same total number of spacers so you can effectively preload your headset. Do that first by re-installing your stem cap, tightening till it’s snug (and no further), lining up your handlebars with your front tire, and then evenly tightening the pinch bolts.
Moving spacers above or below your stem is one way to change how high your hands are relative to your bum, but what if there’s no more spacers to move? That brings us to our next component: handlebars.
Handlebars have a few measurements to be aware of. The first is rise, which is simply how much higher your hands are (measured vertically) than the middle portion of your bar. So, if we feel our hands are too low when we’re on our bike, the second way to get them higher is to buy a handlebar with more rise. They range from little to no rise, like this Race Face Next SL bar, which has 10mm rise, to 40+mm rise, like this Renthal Fatbar.
The second measurement is called sweep, and is the degree to which your bars bend backward from the stem. It is typically between five and nine degrees. This dimension mostly comes down to personal preference, and the only real way to get a feel for it is to go to your local shop and hold a few different bars in your hand. Don’t stress it too much if you can’t do that, as the differences are small and you’ll get used to whatever you have.
The last measurement to consider is width. The correct width for a given person is a much discussed topic. It’s true that people with wider shoulders and longer arms do better with bars at the upper end of the width spectrum, and vice versa for smaller riders, but there is definitely room for personal preference in the equation.
When you’re deciding if you should cut down your handlebars from stock, consider this. A wider bar will give you more leverage, and therefore a more stable feel through rough terrain. It gives you a larger mechanical advantage over the rocks and chunder that is trying to divert the path of your front wheel. There is a point of diminishing returns, though; the bar can be so wide that it inhibits your ability to effectively turn it, or the trail can be tight enough that you’re hitting trees growing by the side of the trail. Most people in the middle of the height bell curve are fine with bars around 760mm-770mm (~30”) wide.
To cut them down, head over to your local bike shop, or pick up a hacksaw and a guide at your hardware store.
Getting your bars installed on your bike is a simple matter. Center them in your stem, rotate them so that the rise is maxed out, and then rotate them backward until the sweep is parallel with the ground. Your handlebars are the chassis upon which all your controls sit, and there’s actually a substantial amount of adjustment to be made on them as well. From using Sram’s Matchmaker or Shimano’s I-spec tabs to mount your brakes, shifter, and dropper lever together, to changing their angle on your handlebar, there’s plenty of small little adjustments you can make to get your controls where they should be so you can reach them easily.
Going through all of them is beyond the scope of this video, but here’s a few common ones I want to at least mention.
- Firstly, don’t be afraid to move your brakes, shifter, and dropper remote toward or away from your grips, so that your fingers can reach everything easily but also not knock into things when you don’t want. Once you figure out where you want them, I like to only tighten them enough that they’ll stay put when I’m using them, but move in the event of a crash. That can help prevent unnecessarily broken parts.
- Second, with both Sram and Shimano’s systems to attach your brake to your shifter, you can actually move your shifter independently of the brake simply by loosening this bolt a little and sliding the shifter forward or backward to line it up with your hand better.
- Lastly, there’s no reason not to change the order of your controls. For example, if you can’t reach your dropper post lever and it’s currently on the inside of your brake clamp, try putting it on the outside and see if that helps.
Most brakes have a number of adjustments to change how far away from the bar the lever sits, where in the lever-throw the pads make contact, and more. The next episode in this series covers hydraulic brakes in-depth, which you can watch here. You can also check out this blog post, which talks about handlebar set-up in more detail than I did today.
There’s an infinite number of differently shaped saddles, and everyone has their own favorite. The differences are sometimes obvious and sometimes pretty nuanced, but regardless, the best way to find which one works for you is to try it.
What I want to talk about instead is how high your saddle should be, how to consistently measure that height, and the other adjustments we can make to our current saddle.
Determining appropriate saddle height is pretty easy. Set yourself up to a wall or table, sit on your extended saddle, and drop one foot to the furthest point away in the pedal rotation. Your knee should be at near-full extension, but not locked out, with your ankle at a slight extension.
How to measure saddle height is a question that comes up a lot in regards to our bike builder, where we ask folks to measure the distance from their pedal to the top of the saddle. That allows us to make sure your dropper post selection will work for you, and not be too long. It’s also useful information for you, because it gives you a consistent measurement that you can take from bike to bike, whether you’re borrowing a friend’s ride or picking up your own new custom build.
Because different saddles differ in the distance between the top of the saddle to the rails, we’ll measure from the very top of the saddle to the top of your pedal when it’s at the bottom of its pedal rotation.
The last thing to adjust for your bike’s fit is how the saddle sits on the seastpost. By loosening the bolt or bolts that clamp your saddle to your post, you can move the saddle forward or backward, an easy way to change how far your hands are from your bum or affect your weight distribution on your bike. You can also change the angle of the saddle, which can help alleviate discomfort and pressure points. It’s a simple thing to do, and can make a big difference if you hate how your saddle feels, so if you’re having problems, give it a go.
That covers our last two touch points on our bicycle, and should give you a good idea of some easy adjustments you can make to get your bike to fit you better. If you have any questions about anything we talked about today, please let us know by shooting us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In our next installment of Understanding Mountain Bikes we’ll be shedding light on one of the more intimidating parts of our mountain bikes, the hydraulic disc brakes. So, if you want to make sure to catch it, and if you like these videos, please subscribe to our channel and hit the little notifications icon. Also, don’t forget to head to fanatikbike.com to try out our Custom Bike Builder and see what your dream build could look like! Thanks for watching, we’ll see you next time.
More Articles You Might Like
How To / Dan Perl / May 17, 2021
Here we cover what could be the most interesting and is arguably the most important MTB component—wh...Read More
How To / Dan Perl / May 04, 2021
In part 2 of Understanding Mountain Bikes, we’re looking into the component “system” that allows you...Read More